(Author’s Note: This is Part Two of a five-part story I’m currently writing for the Holiday Season. It takes much of its inspiration from the Coloured Fairy Books compiled by the Scots author Andrew Lang. Again, I hope to post updates every couple of days; I hope to post the next one by Wednesday. In the meantime, constructive criticism is sincerely appreciated. – MKM)
The Prince of Snows
Part Two: Zloy Sneg
Evening fell upon the Village and, as the sun set in the West, it seemed that the wind was blowing much harder and the snow was swirling around in spiralling flurries. A fanciful person would have shuddered as the snow whirled and danced before his eyes and said that it was like an unseen hunter was patiently and relentlessly trying to rope in his prey.
To honour and entertain their guest, the goodwives of the Village laid out a feast – simple, yes, but certainly made with care and bound to be satisfying – in the council house where the Elders usually met to deal with one concern or another. There was much to sate even the greediest of gluttons: pelmeni filled with a savoury paste of meat and potatoes; kasha with butter stirred into it; slabs of roast boar and deer; a rich borscht made vividly red with beets; and sweet vatrushka filled with creamy cheese to be eaten afterwards with mugs of hot tea and medovukh for those who preferred something stronger to ward off the chill.
As the evening meal began to reach its close, the Village bard came forward and took his place beside the fire-pit. He sat upon a nearby keg and set his balalaika upon his knee to tune it.
When all was ready, he told his waiting audience, “As the snow has begun to fall outside, I will sing tonight of what happened many, many years ago.” As he began to strum his instrument, he went on to say that many of the babushkas and dedushkas of the Village had been no older than the youths and maidens who now came to sit at his feet when it happened. “Many of you present had not even been born,” he added. He raised his eyes to where Aleksei and Yekaterina sat and nodded to them. “Myself, I only know because of what my own babushka told me. But the battle was fierce and great was the fear in the hearts of our people, for one of our own had been lured away…” Here, his voice trailed off and he regarded the young people with a sinister glance. “Yes, lured away by Him!”
Even as his wide-eyed audience gasped in collective horror, the bard began to sing:
One night in deepest winter
When all lay in deepest slumber
A voice came whispering, whispering
Asking a lass to come and play
To come and play, come and stay
In his Fortress of Snow
And, lo: a maiden fair went forth
Her golden hair flying about
And the winds were swirling, swirling
Blowing through the valley far and wide
Blowing cold, blowing hard
Through the pristine, falling snow
Enraptured was she, enamoured indeed
Eyes shining with unspoken longing
Walking though the snow was falling, falling
A hand extended as if in yearning
Reaching out, stretching forth
Towards the Prince of Snows
And, lo: he came in his hooded cape
White as the snow falling ‘round him
His voice was sweet: beckoning, beckoning
A wheedling, teasing, persuading voice
“Come with me, stay with me
In my Fortress of Snow”
But no bride-bed awaited this star-cros’d lass
No bed but a coffin lined with snow and ice
For the Prince was but playing, playing
Knowing the frailty of mortal ken
He meant mischief, he meant death
This evil Prince of Snows
But before he claimed that mortal lass
A great noise came from the distant East
There was the sound of growling, growling
And a sleigh came gliding in and a voice cried out:
“You’ve done enough; you’ve gone too far,
O ye Prince of Snows!”
It was at this point that the visiting Magiya cocked her head to one side, regarding the bard dubiously. That isn’t how I remember it happening, she thought with an odd smile on her face. She threw a sidelong glance at Old Yekaterina who rolled her eyes and shrugged.
And the Queen of Spring leapt forth
Her hands filled with holy fire
Where she strode the snow was melting, melting
Melting in the heat of her anger
And it seemed all fell silent, all was silent
As she faced the Prince of Snows
And the maiden stood still
Frozen by the wind, by the frost
But her heart kept beating, beating
Even as two Forces fought by her
The Queen would not, would not give up
But neither would the Prince of Snows
Frost answered every volley of fire
Lightning crackled and thunder rumbled
And the villagers were waking, waking
Awakened by the noises outside
Awakened by the fury, by the fight
‘Tween the Queen and the Prince of Snows
And the villagers rallied to the side of their Queen
Blades and cudgels and staves were raised
And the hounds they loosed; howling, howling
Baying against the Prince’s icy minions
Raising the alarm, raising the cry
To fight the Prince of Snows
And in her rage the Queen threw a curse
All her anger in that single verse:
Even as the Prince was snarling, snarling
His sword-arm drawn back to strike
Then: “If you dare again, if you dare return
Yon hunter becomes prey, o Prince of Snows!”
And a cut slashed through the Prince’s face
Even as the fatal words left the Queen’s lips
And the villagers came running, running
The maiden fainting senseless but safe
Carried away, borne swiftly away
From the grasp of the Prince of Snows
Nursing his wounds the Prince spun away
Taking his wicked goblins with him
And they went running, running
Running back to whence they came
To plot, to ploy, to seek revenge
This wicked Prince of Snows
The cut still smarted from time to time.
He never really forgave that horrible woman for inflicting that wound upon his cheek. It was a wound that marred an otherwise flawless face. It was but a small cut and it had healed and the scar hardly showed upon pale skin, but it would sting and smart and hurt. It was a constant reminder to Meroz that the Koroleva had gotten the best of him in that fight over that pretty little mortal girl many years ago.
Damn you, Vesna Molodoya, he thought angrily as he directed his goblin army to spread throughout the demesne, freezing everything in sight with their barest touch. That Village and all who dwelt within would have been mine if it weren’t for your interference!
As the Army of Winter progressed through the realm, trees were laid bare and their empty branches seemed to be raised to the heavens in supplication and mourning for what they had lost. Neither shoot nor sprout could be seen, having been buried deep ‘neath layer upon layer of snow. Hares and rabbits, voles and ermines went running into their holes to escape the cold; squirrels and chipmunks that had fattened themselves in the autumn hid themselves in hollow tree trunks to sleep until the coming of spring.
Of all the creatures, only the wolves and foxes dared to skulk through the forests. The scarcity of prey in this Season of Ice meant that they were more savage than they usually were – and woe betide any human foolhardy enough to walk into their path! For the great grey wolves and the sleek white foxes were servants of the Gospodin Snega and were as cold and merciless as He.
But even these vicious creatures fled when the Great Bears came lumbering in, for these mighty beasts were loyal to the Koroleva, even the snowy white ones that seemed to blend into the wintery background. One snap of their massive jaws and – CRUNCH! – that was the end of any fox, wolf, or even goblin.
Meroz looked over the land beneath him as he flew over the demesne. His steely gaze rested again on that Village where he and the Koroleva confronted each other all those years ago for a single meaningless life. He wondered if it would be worth it to…play a little with those villagers once more.
And a little opportunity appeared for the Prince of Snows: just below, a young woman seemed to storm away from a small group of friends.
“I do not believe in such things!” she shouted to them. “There is no such thing as a Prince of Snows! I shall prove it to you; it isn’t that cold, after all.”
“Olga!” another cried, rushing to pull her back by grabbing her arm. “Are you mad? You’ll freeze to death out there!”
The one called Olga angrily shook off her friend. “Bah!” she spat into a nearby snowdrift. “I will prove to you that there is no such thing as a Prince of Snows, Yulia; it is but a strong winter.”
“And if you’re wrong…” the one called Yulia gasped weakly.
“Then I will gladly take his hand and run away with him!” Olga replied smugly with a laugh that seemed a little too confident. “Perhaps it would be a fine thing to become the Gospodinya Snega!”
Meroz burst into delighted laughter at this boastful little girl’s declaration. He pulled his antlered cloak around him and went swooping down to claim a bride.
“That wasn’t how I remember things from that particular night,” Old Yekaterina muttered when she, her husband, and Magiya returned to the cottage.
Their sons and their wives remained in the council house to swap stories with their neighbours. Yulia and the other grandchildren went for a walk around the village, admonished beforehand not to stray too far and to hurry home if the wind grew much stronger. Magiya even wanted to lend them her bear Yarostnii to guard them on their walk, but Yulia laughed and said that they would not go so far as to need such a mighty bodyguard, but thanked her anyway.
“Indeed,” Aleksei replied, judging that the tea in the family samovar was hot enough to serve. He grinned at Magiya somewhat slyly. “I was only there towards the end, if I recall. The Great Lady having summoned us from the barracks in the Tvestok in the middle of the night.
“And it was not the village men who managed to help save Natalya Ivanova from Him.”
“Indeed,” Magiya agreed as she accepted a cup of tea, stirring a measure of cloudberry jam in to sweeten it. As she took a sip, she closed her eyes, seemingly lost in memory.
“You have no power over these people!” she shouted, her voice ringing like a great bell through the howling of the wind.
His laughter was cruel and it crackled through the air, raising the hair on the back of her neck as he swirled around her.
“You forget that it is my Season, Queen of Spring,” he hissed at her. “You are at your weakest at this point, you…”
Whatever he wanted to say, he never got to say it. She dug her nails into his pale cheek and tore through the flesh. He cried out in pain, in shock; bright crimson blood spattered the snow at their feet, a vivid contrast to the stark whiteness.
“If you play your tricks on this particular village another time, you won’t be so lucky,” she snarled dangerously into his ear. “You play at being a hunter? Well, you cross me one more time and you will know what it’s like to be prey!”
His dark eyes flashed at this and he snarled right back at her. “This is not over, Vesna Molodoya,” he said grimly.
“Perhaps not, Meroz Zminiyev,” she replied, every bit as cold and as imperious as he was. Her hair fluttered in the wind like flames and her green eyes glowed with righteous anger. “Now: leave before I decide to finish this once and for all. I abjure, thee; begone!”
The Prince of Snows howled in frustration at being thwarted from his wickedness. With a grand swirl of his antlered cloak about him, he launched himself into the air and disappeared.
She drew a deep breath at his departure, steeling herself after releasing so much power at a time, in a Season that was not her own. She trembled in every nerve and would have fallen if the Captain of her Home Guard had not caught her.
“My Queen!” Aleksei Kurnonski cried as he grabbed her by the shoulders. “Are you all right?”
Weakly, she nodded but her eyes flashed with alarm. “The girl!” she exclaimed, grabbing his arm. “What of the girl? Have we saved her in time?”
Aleksei nodded and pointed to where a fallen figure was being helped up by a tall young woman wearing a deep-green cloak with a pattern of firebirds embroidered upon its hem.
“Her sister, the one to whom you gave that cloak, has her,” he replied. His voice was filled with admiration and his eyes were filled with love as he stared that way. “Kept her head, she did, that Yekaterina. Brave and bold, my Queen; I daresay she’d make you a proper lady-in-waiting.”
The Koroleva Vesna Molodoya raised an eyebrow at this and laughed at her smitten Captain.
“Come,” she said, managing to limp a few steps in the thick snow. “Let’s bring those girls back to their family – and then, we talk about bringing you home a bride.”
“Babushka! Dedushka!” an agonised cry rang forth as the front door banged open.
Everyone in the room turned to see Yulia running in, fear written all over her face. Magiya stared at her and had half-risen from her chair.
“What is it, child?” Aleksei demanded, rising to take his shaking granddaughter into his arms.
“You’ve gone pale!” Yekaterina exclaimed.
“What has happened?” Magiya demanded.
“It’s Olga,” Yulia said between gasps. “My friend Olga Alikhanova. She’s run off into the Wastelands; she says there is no Gaspodin Snega, she means to prove that!”
Her elders stared at her in horror and disbelief. Magiya, on the other hand, shook her head and looked grim.
“Such thinking will only draw Him closer,” she said, striding across the room to grab cloak and boots. As she pulled these on, she added, “He has gone too far; this time, He pays.”